In Mississippi African Americans were persuaded away from registering and voting by means of intimidation, harassment, terror, and confusingly complicated literacy tests. They had been limited from participation in the political system since 1890 by passage that year of a new state constitution, and by the practices of the ruling white Democrats in the decades since, with participation in the state Democratic Party limited to whites. Starting in 1961, SNCC and COFO had waged campaigns to register black voters.
In June 1963, African Americans attempted to cast votes in the Mississippi primary election but were prevented from doing so. This contest to determine Democratic candidates was essentially the only competitive race, as the state was a one-party jurisdiction. Unable to vote in the official election, an alternative "Freedom Ballot" for an election to take place at the same time as the scheduled November voting. With this election seen as a protest action to dramatize the denial of their constitutional voting rights, close to 80,000 people cast freedom ballots for an integrated slate of candidates. In response, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Bob Moses, founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. As a result, they encountered violent opposition included activists being intimidated with church, home, and business burnings and bombings, beatings, and arrests of blacks.